All you need to know about the Indo-Pak ‘improper touch’ row

Ties between India and Pakistan seem set to after both countries claimed the other was harassing their diplomats. Months after Pakistan recalled its high commissioner in India over the alleged harassment of its diplomatic staff in Delhi, Indian Misson in Islamabad issued a note verbale to Pakistan Foreign Office last week lodging a strong protest over harassment of Indian diplomats in Pakistan.

The strongly worded notice comes as a response to Pakistan’s latest move a couple of weeks ago. Indian envoy Ajay Bisaria and Deputy High Commissioner JP Singh were closely followed and watched by Pakistani intelligence agents at a wedding in Islamabad, sources told India Today.

This was reported a day after an official of the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi got involved in an altercation on Sunday, with an Indian woman at Sarojini Nagar market who alleged that he had inappropriately touched her. He was allegedly let off after issuing a written apology to the after she lodged an official complaint at the nearest police station but refused to press charges later.

Pakistan issued a statement reminding India about the obligation to protect diplomats on its soil under the Vienna convention. India was quick to respond and remind the neighbouring nation’s mission of the innumerable instances its diplomats were harassed on Pakistani soil.

Another recent row

Pakistani High Commissioner Sohail Mahmood’s return to Pakistan last summer is said to have been the result of at least three alleged instances of Pakistani officials and their families in India facing harassment at the hands of India’s secret agencies.

The uptick in diplomatic rows is believed to have begun when India  talks with Pakistan’s foreign minister in August 2014 after the Pakistani high commissioner in India met with Kashmiri separatist leaders. But when Mahmood was summoned back, it raised the fear of a possible permanent recall.

“This deliberate bullying, which continues is not confined to a single isolated and continues unabated despite repeated official protests lodged with the Indian high commission here,” Pakistan’s foreign office spokesperson Muhammad Faisal was quoted as saying in The Express Tribune.

He added that despite identifying the miscreants and bringing them to the notice of senior officials in India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), “no positive action has been taken from the Indian side so far.” India first the incident as normal and routine, but later asked its diplomats, diplomatic staff and their families in Islamabad not to venture outside the diplomatic enclave unless absolutely necessary.

Other attacks on diplomatic relations

New Delhi did not fail to bring to attention that Pakistan was allegedly responsible for carrying out an equivalent campaign of harassment against its own diplomats posted in Islamabad, accusing Pakistani intelligence agents having entered the embassy’s residential compound, of hacking into their email and social media accounts.

“Aggressive surveillance, violation of physical space and tailing of officers in close and dangerous proximity is a perennial issue. [Intelligence agency] personnel keep shooting videos of the officers, thrusting phones on their faces. Obscene phone calls and messages are constantly received on phones,” an unnamed Indian diplomat in Islamabad told Al Jazeera.

Meanwhile, Pakistan claims that several children of its diplomats had been “intimidated and threatened on their way home from their school” in Delhi, while India says its diplomats in Islamabad are being harassed as well.

The Pakistan High Commission in Delhi claimed that Indian security personnel warned repairmen and electricians against entering its premises. Both missions said personnel being targeted on the road, with cars stopped and drivers intimidated. Other instances on both sides include obscene phone calls, stoppage of milk and newspaper delivery to diplomats, and even 3 a.m. doorbell rings.

Why it matters

As per the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961) and the subsequent Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (1963), the safety and security of diplomats on foreign soil is the responsibility of the host nation and that the diplomatic agent’s person, premises and property are inviolable and must be respected and protected by the “receiving state”.

As diplomatic relations spiral downward, the fear is that as a next step, India and Pakistan may take stronger measures, including sending back diplomats or scaling down their missions. 

At a time when new governments have failed to revive bilateral dialogue and the armed forces of both nations continue to violate ceasefire along the Line of Control, the slightest escalation will impact the few lines of communication that remain. Regardless of the provocation, it is important for both countries to address allegations of harassment of each other’s diplomats and interference in High Commission work, to avoid a further slippage in ties.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius

DiplomacyIndiaIndo-PakInternational relationsPakistan